Maryland Students Want Winston Churchill High School Name Change, Falsely Claim British Leader Responsible for Indian Famine

Churchill
Reg Speller/Getty

Students at Winston Churchill High School in Montgomery County, Maryland, launched an online petition calling for a name change. They allege the British prime minister was a racist responsible for a famine that killed millions of people in Bengal, India, during World War II.

The move comes as protests about racial injustice have taken place across the country, including efforts such as this one to rewrite or even erase history.

The petition reads, in part:

As a diverse, accepting student body, why must the Black and Brown students of Churchill attend a school that celebrates a man that proudly believed them to be, “beastly” and inferior? There is a psychological impact of naming the places we live in and learn after destructive and hateful figures. We should refuse to glorify the people who murdered and abused our students’ ancestors. After the recent growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, England has faced a reckoning about Churchill’s crimes against humanity; it is also a time for American institutions to end their glorification of a perpetrator of genocide. 

Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proven Churchill to be responsible for the only famine in the history of the world explicitly and solely caused by policy decisions. Churchill deliberately stole grain and food from India to feed his soldiers, knowingly killing approximately 4 million Indians in the process. When warned by his cabinet of the propensity of his actions, he said, “Famine or no famine, Indians will breed like rabbits.”

After the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion to British rule, Churchill ordered for thousands of Kenyans to be “put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted…men were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine.” (Leigh Day & Co). The Kenya Human Rights Commission has said 90,000 Kenyans were executed, tortured or maimed, and 160,000 were detained in appalling conditions. David Anderson, professor of African Politics at Oxford University, says, “Basically you could get away with murder. It was systematic.”

But the “history” about Churchill and his legacy in the students’ petition (no author of the petition is cited) differs from what the Churchill Project at Hillsdale College published about the controversial claims against a leader who played a vital role in defeating Hitler, who really was responsible for millions of innocent people being exterminated.

The post on Hillsdale’s website, dated April 8, 2015, begins with a book, The Churchill Factor, and a review that includes the assertion the British leader was responsible for the Indian famine:

There’s a good reason why Mayor Johnson omits the now-famous accusation that Churchill starved the Bengalis: it is not true. Alas, in the words of a wartime statesman, “a lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.”2

The charge stems from a 2009 book accusing Churchill of irresponsibility over Bengal that amounted to a war crime, repeated by scores of sources since. As Churchill once remarked, “I should think it was hardly possible to state the opposite of the truth with more precision.”3

The truth—documented by Sir Martin Gilbert and Hillsdale College—is that Churchill did everything he could in the midst of world war to save the Bengalis; and that without him the famine would have been worse.

The Hillsdale post includes Churchill’s own words on the struggles in Indian during the war, including correspondence to his Viceroy of India, Lord Wavell.

Peace, order and a high condition of war-time well-being among the masses of the people constitute the essential foundation of the forward thrust against the enemy….The hard pressures of world-war have for the first time for many years brought conditions of scarcity, verging in some localities into actual famine, upon India. Every effort must be made, even by the diversion of shipping urgently needed for war purposes, to deal with local shortages….Every effort should be made by you to assuage the strife between the Hindus and Moslems and to induce them to work together for the common good.

“The Cabinet cited other causes of the famine rarely mentioned in latter-day denunciations of Churchill: the shortages were ‘partly political in character, caused by Marwari supporters of Congress [Gandhi’s party] in an effort to embarrass the existing Muslim Government of Bengal,'” the Hillsdale post said. “Another cause, they added, was corrupt local officials: tThe Government of India were unduly tender with speculators and hoarders.'”

In fact, it was U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democrat, who rejected helping with the Indian famine:

In April, it was Lord Wavell asking not for 400,000 but 724,000 tons! Now the problem was unseasonable weather and a deadly explosion in the Bombay Docks, which destroyed 50,000 tons of food grains. Peasants were still holding back their crops, he said; rumors were circulating “that London had refused to ask America for help.” The exasperated Cabinet retorted: “If we now approached the United States and they were unable to help, it would at least dispel that allegation.”

Churchill agreed to write President Roosevelt for help, and replace the 45,000 tons lost in the explosion. But he “could only provide further relief for the Indian situation at the cost of incurring grave difficulties in other directions.”

“I am seriously concerned about the food situation in India….Last year we had a grievous famine in Bengal through which at least 700,000 people died,” Churchill wrote. “This year there is a good crop of rice, but we are faced with an acute shortage of wheat, aggravated by unprecedented storms….By cutting down military shipments and other means, I have been able to arrange for 350,000 tons of wheat to be shipped to India from Australia during the first nine months of 1944. This is the shortest haul. I cannot see how to do more.”

“I have had much hesitation in asking you to add to the great assistance you are giving us with shipping but a satisfactory situation in India is of such vital importance to the success of our joint plans against the Japanese that I am impelled to ask you to consider a special allocation of ships to carry wheat to India from Australia….We have the wheat (in Australia) but we lack the ships,” Churchill wrote. “I have resisted for some time the Viceroy’s request that I should ask you for your help, but… I am no longer justified in not asking for your help.”

Roosevelt replied that his Joint Chiefs were “unable on military grounds to consent to the diversion of shipping….Needless to say, I regret exceedingly the necessity of giving you this unfavorable reply.”

“There is no doubt that in those fraught weeks Churchill said things off the record (but duly recorded by subordinates) that were unworthy of him, out of exasperation and the press of war on many fronts,” the Hillsdale report said. “There is no evidence that Churchill wished any Indian to starve; on the contrary, he did his best to help them, amidst a war to the death.”

Meanwhile, the school district in Montgomery County said that renaming a school requires at least four nominations for names to replace the name. The students’ petition only lists three: W.E.B. Dubois, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglas.

Dubois was a socialist and one of the founders of the NAACP. 

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